A disquieting movie examining the malleable nature of morality during World War II opens today. No, it's not directed by some dude named Tarantino. You're kidding, right?
Flame & Citron spans a fateful year in the lives of two real-life members of the Danish Resistance, the fearless young Bent Faurschou-Hviid (nicknamed Flame, on account of his red hair) and his grizzled wheelman Jorgen Haagen Schmith, aka Citron. They are immortalized by their countrymen, yet director Ole Christian Madsen deliberately prints the fact rather than the legend. His approach reveals the duo to be patriots but not heroes, which is another way of saying that it's about the end of innocence -- theirs and ours.
Innocent might seem like an odd way to describe cool, calm assassins certain of the righteousness of their mission(s). Flame & Citron is about the price one pays to embrace a cause, and it's not (just) one's life: Citron (the stalwart Mads Mikkelsen, whom we don't expect to see in a supporting role), noirish in his fedora, unshaven and bleary-eyed, gradually loses his family as he's consumed by the crusade to eliminate collaborators with the occupying Nazis. Meanwhile, the ruthlessly efficient Flame (the charismatic Thure Lindhardt) develops crippling doubts as he finds himself played, used, spun and betrayed by those he admires and trusts.
We still like to think of World War II as the good war, with a clear-cut fascist enemy that had to be defeated. The further we get from that period, however, movies about the war tend to be increasingly nuanced and complex. Black-and-white turns out to have myriad shades of gray, and lesser human impulses have a corrosive, overriding effect on idealism.
This seems like a good spot to mention Inglourious Basterds, also set during the brutal heyday of the Third Reich. No one can match Tarantino when it comes to creating charming lowlifes, and he's such a terrific writer of dialogue that he distracts us (at least until the jokey final sequence) from noticing that Basterds is just another of his exercises in nihilistic playacting. It has nothing to say about war, any war, or the men and women caught up in it.
Admittedly, for all the grit and dirt that Flame & Citron stirs up, it delivers a smooth, polished ride. I was expecting more of a documentary-style approach and less in the way of production values. In fact, Madsen is so enamored of a few of his set pieces -- such as a daylight plot to assassinate the head of the Gestapo in a restaurant -- that he lets the substance of the scene be overshadowed by the staging and style.
Even as he makes one concession after another to moviegoers seeking entertainment, Madsen continually challenges the viewer to consider what he or she would have done with the same narrow margin afforded his protagonists. Flame & Citron doesn't aim to rewrite or devalue the history of the Resistance in Denmark, but to portray how hard it is to see in the shadows, to trust sources and information, to maintain allegiances when cohorts are jockeying for postwar position.
Underneath the historical context, and the period clothes and cars, Flame & Citron is a cautionary, timeless tale of the young soldier who's surrendered to a just cause, and is therefore easily manipulated and used. A patriot, in other words, but not necessarily a hero.
Flame & Citron opens Friday, August 21, 2009 at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco and the Elmwood Theatre in Berkeley.